Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Evolutionary Biology and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Emergence of novel domains in proteins

Macarena Toll-Riera13 and M Mar Albà12*

Author Affiliations

1 Evolutionary Genomics Group, Research Programme on Biomedical Informatics (GRIB) - Hospital del Mar Research Institute (IMIM), Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona, Spain

2 Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), Barcelona, Spain

3 Current address: Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:47  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-47

Published: 20 February 2013



Proteins are composed of a combination of discrete, well-defined, sequence domains, associated with specific functions that have arisen at different times during evolutionary history. The emergence of novel domains is related to protein functional diversification and adaptation. But currently little is known about how novel domains arise and how they subsequently evolve.


To gain insights into the impact of recently emerged domains in protein evolution we have identified all human young protein domains that have emerged in approximately the past 550 million years. We have classified them into vertebrate-specific and mammalian-specific groups, and compared them to older domains. We have found 426 different annotated young domains, totalling 995 domain occurrences, which represent about 12.3% of all human domains. We have observed that 61.3% of them arose in newly formed genes, while the remaining 38.7% are found combined with older domains, and have very likely emerged in the context of a previously existing protein. Young domains are preferentially located at the N-terminus of the protein, indicating that, at least in vertebrates, novel functional sequences often emerge there. Furthermore, young domains show significantly higher non-synonymous to synonymous substitution rates than older domains using human and mouse orthologous sequence comparisons. This is also true when we compare young and old domains located in the same protein, suggesting that recently arisen domains tend to evolve in a less constrained manner than older domains.


We conclude that proteins tend to gain domains over time, becoming progressively longer. We show that many proteins are made of domains of different age, and that the fastest evolving parts correspond to the domains that have been acquired more recently.

Protein domain; Lineage-specific domain; Evolutionary rate; Novel domain; Gene age; Domain age